Amina Ross at Ditch Projects: a meander nevertheless flows

Amina Ross inaugurates the 11th year of Ditch Projects with a multimedia installation, 'When the water comes to light out of the well of my self'

Ditch Project, now in its 11th season of exhibitions in Springfield, Oregon, has kicked off this year with Amina Ross’ When the water comes to light out of the well of my self. The multimedia installation is curated by the Director of Black Embodiments Studio, Kemi Adeyemi, and continues through November 2. As the title of the exhibit indicates, to come to an understanding of the artist’s intent, full immersion is required. Yet, if one looks for a starting point for the narrative that occurs, one might find oneself lost in metaphors for and about water.

That is to say the exhibit can be a little difficult to navigate at first, at least if one tries to follow the list of pieces on the information card. The animation Refracted Rituals, for example, is first on the list, yet the piece itself, a single monitor partially draped with a blanket, is in the far back corner of the gallery. The information card then becomes something to be put aside as a guide for anything but knowing the title of a piece. And so the viewer meanders as though following a flatland stream, its bends and eddys eventually revealing the scope of the work. 

Amina Ross, Untitled (watering is a type of releasing)/photo by Mike Bray, courtesy of Ditch Projects

Two multi-colored pillows suspended from the ceiling, Hold (1) and Hold (2), are the first things one sees, although a scaffolded bed-like platform to their left and a stack of four monitors on the right side of the gallery, compete for attention. The bed, Etheric Bridge (Winter’s Grief), has two people lying on it, so I move over to the monitors. The card lists this piece as Untitled (watering is a type of releasing) with a note that reads “on top of the monitors there is water from 3 baths and a tincture made of Hawthorne and rose.” In that the contents of these jars looks more like decaying sludge, I wonder what sort of bath they are from. Certainly not the relaxing, bubbly kind. Some sort of trauma is afoot, and perhaps the multiple segments of the video will provide some clue. 

All four monitors simultaneously play a progression of shifting images: a drawing of a motherly figure with love and compassion in her expression; then someone (the artist) washes their hands with a stone that generates suds; a drain appears yet is so harshly lit that most of what we see is just white light; next, a lengthy abstract and shifting pattern that looks a bit like the bottom of a stream bed covered with freshly fallen leaves (I begin to make color associations with the jars); then, a hand (presumably the artist’s) running fingers through a white fur-like material; and finally, a still image of a hand alongside what looks like it might be river rocks, both partially obscured yet bridged by a brilliant light. Aha! The same image that covers the cushion portion of the bed piece!

I wait for my turn to lay myself down on the bed and take in the images on the four monitors above it. The thin cushion/mattress is uncomfortable for this old guy’s bones and I wish I had one of the pillows for my head. It is unclear at first what I’m looking at. Three of the four monitors show very little, except I can tell I am looking at water. The fourth monitor has a rock in the same water, and I realize the camera is inside a tub. I begin to see leaves floating, then a body, or rather parts of a body, as the monitors fragment the rather chaotic scene. Eventually, the tub drains leaving the detritus behind, and the jars sitting on the stack of four monitors of Untitled (watering is a type of release) now have a context for their contents. An emotional cleansing has occurred. 

Amina Ross, Etheric Bridge (Winter’s Grief)/Photo by Mike Bray, courtesy of Ditch Projects

Normal hygiene practices would not necessarily be an indication, yet a ritualized cleansing of the skin is another matter. The repetition of this act in various videos suggests a persistent intention on the part of the artist. I would hesitate to speculate—if I didn’t know from reading Adeyemi’s accompanying essay—that the work is significantly about race, gender and sexuality. The installation avoids a literalness or a didacticism, and that allows others to access universal symbologies that may offer a more general perspective.

The 29th hexagram of the I Ching, for example, is The Abysmal (Water).(1) It is one of the I Ching’s eight double hexagrams, meaning that in this particular instance the water trigram is on both the top and bottom. Despite the negative inference in the title, Water is considered auspicious. Think “plunging in.” Not surprisingly, then, the heart is involved as well. Danger still lingers (The Abysmal), and the I Ching cautions that one might do well to be strategic when following a passion.

Commentary for the hexagram states, “Water sets the example for the right conduct under such circumstances [danger]. It  flows on an on, and merely fills up all the places through which it flows; it does not shrink from any dangerous spot nor from any plunge, and nothing can make it lose its own essential nature.”

Water’s nature is multifarious. It is ice and steam; it drains and bubbles up; it soaks, erodes, fills and falls. We find evidence of some of these characteristics in the two remaining videos, Refracted Rituals and Onyx at sunset. As somewhat abstract single-monitor pieces, neither has the strong narrative qualities of the four-channel pieces, yet they do act as culminating vignettes, especially Refracted Rituals, as it incorporates images that we have already seen. In each, water flows in and out or up and down. It is not constrained by rules of physics, and so can also represent that for the artist, convention is also put aside. 

As the title for the exhibit subtly suggests, light plays a role in much of this work as well. Both Refracted Rituals and Onyx at sunset have changing light in the sky. The blinding white-out of a drain in Untitled (watering is a type of releasing) is quite off-putting, as if the artist does not want us to see what has been washed away (although in another scene the drain is filled with dirt that must be ushered down and away). The recurrent image of the brilliant light that bridges the hand and rocks is perhaps the most obvious, and while it does create a sense of wonder for this viewer (how was the image created?), it also may be key to why I walk away from this exhibit with a good feeling. Whether by their own doing or with the help of some outside force, the artist has managed some degree of resolve.

Amina Ross, Film Still from
Untitled (watering is a type of releasing)/Courtesy of Ditch Projects

Indeed, the coherence of the exhibit comes through the interplay of motifs and repetition of images between the various pieces, all of which becomes more apparent after patiently wandering around the room a couple times. The initial sense of melancholy that comes from Untitled (water is a type of releasing) and Etheric Bridge (Winter’s Grief) is relieved when images from the two works are incorporated in Refracted Rituals. We become aware of a new dynamic simply because this latter work (and Onyx at sun set) remove the narrative and become more of a culmination…a resolve.

It’s as if acceptance is itself a force to be reckoned with.

(1) I Ching/The Richard Wilhelm Translation, rendered into English by Cary F. Baynes, Princeton University Press. 1977.

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